A Closed and Common Orbit (week 2): the art of being human

A Closed and Common Orbit Read-along

Welcome to the second week of the @SFFReadalong of A Closed and Common Orbit. This week, we find Sidra struggling to adapt to her new existence as she searches for a way to come to terms with the kit. In the past, Jane must face her fears if she is to survive in the shuttle.

1) Sidra has quite the range of emotional (and physical!) crises this week. What do you make of the ways she tries to cope/adjust? Do you think she can come to terms with herself?

My empathy got a bit of a workout this week – on the one hand, it’s easy to see Sidra is lashing out at Pepper because she’s frustrated, which feels unfair; on the other, I could completely sympathise with last week’s agoraphobia and I’m a bit horrified by the idea of editing your own memory to manage disk space.

I didn’t get the sense she was really trying or wanting to connect with the kit, and it’s easy to disapprove of that. But Sidra is having to adapt to so much so fast, I’m not surprised she’s struggling. If you map her responses to the change curve, she’s actually doing quite well – from denial to blame to doubt this week! – which bodes well for the future.

I’m fascinated and delighted that she takes solace in and inspiration from art. Not that Becky Chambers is weighting the narrative on one side of the ‘are AI people’ debate. At all. Anyone else yell at the Picnic debate?


2) How would you choose what memories to delete to save new ones? Is Pepper being sensible or is it an impossible thing to ask?

Pepper’s suggestion seemed so sensible on the surface, but… while it’s pragmatic, I’m not convinced it’s workable. And fundamentally – for all that Pepper clearly sees AIs as people in almost every way – it’s a suggestion you would only ever make to a machine. I think Pepper has a bit of reflection to do here (although she’s not wrong to suggest that Sidra is being profligate in using up her disk space!)

Remember the Tripledent Gum jingleMy brain is such a random sieve. This passage really made me think about the things we don’t know we remember – song lyrics, how to swear in languages we don’t speak, the absurd names of our favourite fantasy aristocrats (or deities) – but not where we left our house keys.

Still, if I had to start deliberately forgetting things… gosh, I’d explode with inner turmoil. We’ve all got things we don’t care to remember, but those memories are still part of who we are. Maybe I could lose some of those terrible 90s song lyrics, though.


3) What are your first impressions of Owl?

Owl makes me warm and fuzzy. As with Sidra, I love how Becky Chambers makes her feel like a perfectly human surrogate Mom and then reminds us that she’s not only a machine, but a disembodied one to boot. I loved the scene in which she realises she’s going to need to teach Jane to chew, and when she gets all stern and worried about Jane going outside to see the stars. But the thing that really gets me is how utterly disapproving she is. She’s sort of ruefully affectionate about the idiot Earthers who tried to tell the local Enhanced that they should step down their tech and come home (they were foolish, but they meant well); but she’s quietly yet blisteringly angry about the way the local Enhanced are using slave labour (and child slave labour at that). She seems like the sort of AI who would always make sure the kettle was on if she knew you were popping round, even if you had to pour your own tea. Aunty Owl.


4) There are lots of big big themes being unpacked as we get to the end of the first part. Which one(s) stand out for you? (How) Is it explored through each timeline)?

The big ones for me are about found family and personhood and surviving trauma and identity/finding yourself. I had lots of clever things to say, but then I got an awful cold and really all I have left now is IT’S ALL AWESOME AND IT MAKES ME CRY. Ahem.


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